What sort of economy do we live in?
Industrial? Post-industrial? Service? Experience? Or, as MIT’s Uri Sarid suggests, do we live in a coherence economy?
Coherence economies are defined by hyper-specialised people and technology, an increasing blend of digital and physical experience, and the ability to control almost everything in our built environments. Elements of our lives are still designed and provided by specialists, but they’re cross-compatible: they work together to create an increasingly seamless lived experience, which we run and adjust through personal devices.
The coherence economy has progressed, according to Sarid, in three areas: scope, dynamics, and layers. It’s based on constantly changing information, and real time responses to that information. It’s owned, built and operated by multiple providers - the wearable tech is from one company, the apps from half a dozen others, the Things in the Internet of Things all designed by manufacturers.
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If there’s one word that sums up what it’s like to live in that world, it’s “holistic”. Everything works together. Everything is designed to work together and provide people - users, customers, inhabitants, call them what you like - with what they need. To designers and brand managers, that thinking should be an inspiration.
When discussing the coherence economy, Sarid explains scope as the range of information points companies collect. He talks about doctors and healthcare companies having access to all manner of data sets that affect your health. Rather than asking ‘how do you feel?’, your GP will have access to information about all aspects of your life.
When it comes to brand design and innovation, the question of scope is similarly all-encompassing. Firstly, what does the brand know about the consumer already? We often talk about resight here at Rare, looking at existing customer insight with fresh eyes.
But beyond that, brands need to innovate more widely than simply new product design. Innovation should think beyond product, focusing on how it impacts people’s lives. You are meeting the consumer at the point of purchase, but where else can you be effective? What is the natural scope of your offering?
Supermarkets are ahead of the game on this front. They have to bring thousands of products from hundreds of brands into their space, and thus into their brand identity - without losing the coherence of that identity.
This purpose-driven branding is the secret of Walmart’s success. 65% of American consumers believe Walmart makes a positive impact on their communities - only delivery and postal firms sneak in ahead of the supermarket giant. It’s a far cry from the public criticism of Walmart’s brand a decade ago: a result of poor treatment of employees, exploiting producers in developing countries, and driving community-focused mom-and-pop firms out of business.
Walmart created a coherent corporate identity and leant in hard on its new goal of being “a global force for good”, redesigning everything from the supply chains up. The scope of the undertaking was vast - but it worked.
Tesco turned its brand identity around in a smaller way, from years of emphasising price and managing bad PR to a renewed focus on quality and experience. Their ‘Food Love Stories’ campaign was far more than just advertising: it was instore, online and social events. It encouraged people to interact and experiment with food, sharing and celebrating. Crucially, it didn’t try to directly contest the perception that Tesco food was lower in quality - it focused on what Tesco ingredients could become when used together.
Technology is big on personalised experiences tailored to your needs. In the coherence economy Sarid defines dynamics as the constantly changing data sets related to the end user. In his example, focused on the medical sector, he relates this to biometrics, but you can equally think of Google’s contextual search results based on your location or the time of day.
Certainly brands and marketing have fully embraced the power of personalisation beyond a newsletter that says ‘Hi [INSERT NAME HERE]’. But often these techniques are aligned solely with marketing campaigns rather than brand innovation itself.
This can be hugely successful. Coca-Cola’s Share A Coke campaign adapted beautifully toward doing this. The first iteration put names on the bottle - popular first names from the targeted millennial demographic - but that was too precise an offering. It’s all very well putting ‘Natasha’ on a bottle, but if nobody with a significant Natasha in their life sees it, is it securing a sale?
The second iteration introduced semi-personal labels like “better half” - that same bottle now fits into the daily activities of anyone in a relationship. It sets up consumers to personalise the product for themselves.
Target’s personalisation - which is so accurate it famously broke the news of one customer’s pregnancy to her father before she could - works because it assigns every customer an ID and tracks everything it can find out under that ID. Ethnicity, job history, buying behaviour - anything that might give a clue as to what’s currently happening in the person’s life and what they might be about to buy.
But is there more brands can do with the reams of data at their disposal, and products crying out for that personal touch?
Nike On Demand is undoubtedly a brilliant product. People can already message an AI-powered bot to find a workout, and receive wake up calls and advice from personal trainers. Take this one step forward: imagine if a wearable could take your vital signs and suggest workouts based on your level of fatigue, the amount of sleep you got last night and your schedule for the week.
It’s worth remembering that humans are still involved in Nike’s offering - it’s not all automated, and the humanity of the messaging and contacts were integral to its 83% ‘would recommend’ rating. Daisy Jing, founder and CEO of acne treatment Banish, places similar importance on the personal touch. Her real-time marketing strategy focuses on delivering immediate responses to questions on social media, and guiding customers to an appropriate product when they want it - which is to say now.
Uri Sarid explains that the coherence economy happens in layers - services aren’t provided by one supplier, the experience goes beyond that.
“For example,” he says, “wearables provide raw feeds of heart rate, temperature, pace, and more; health apps synthesize those into trends; prescription and medication intake information add to the picture; physicians reference electronic medical record systems to assemble plans for improving health, increasingly aided by machine learning; and insurance providers finance the entire landscape in economical ways (for example, incentivizing prevention and positive feedback loops).”
In brand innovation, layered thinking can be inspirational. Uber and Spotify, for instance, found common ground, understanding that they appeal to the same audience and their products are complimentary. Back in 2016, they launched ‘Soundtrack Your Ride’, giving the passenger control over the music in their cab. The functionality was silently removed from Uber (likely due to people’s awful taste in music) but the point is, both brands were thinking about their users’ layered lives.
The trick for brands is to understand that their product is part of a wider ecosystem of people’s daily lives. What are they doing before using the product? Or during? Or after? How can your product align with another product or another activity that perfectly complements consumers’ lives?
By thinking away from the product in isolation, brands can find new ways of making their products meaningful to people’s lives.
The coherence economy goes beyond the qualities of a product and the needs of a demographic. Tech brands like Google aren’t interested in simply having you own one of their phones. They use the coherence between all those apps, all those features and functions and other brands’ offerings to present you with a lifestyle.
Brands in FMCG may not be able to permeate everyone’s lives to the same extent, but this ‘thinking beyond the product’ has become more vital. What more can your brand do? How can you iterate existing product lines? And can soft power get you there?